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Fresno’s $2.3m Settlement in Homeless Case Finalized

July 26, 2008

By John Ellis, The Fresno Bee, Calif.

Jul. 26–Even as U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger signed off Friday on a $2.3 million class-action lawsuit settlement between Fresno and more than 200 of its homeless residents, it was clear that hard feelings linger between him and Mayor Alan Autry.

Autry’s name emerged as Wanger discussed legal fees in the case, which the mayor previously had described as “exorbitant.”

Wanger noted that the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Bay Area private attorney Paul Alexander, who brought the case on behalf of the homeless residents, could legally have sought more than $2.7 million in legal fees, but had agreed on $750,000.

He said that Alexander’s firm was not “taking one penny of legal fees” and others could have been paid hundreds of dollars per hour for their work.

Still, he noted, Autry — who wasn’t present in the courtroom — would likely criticize the agreement “as he so loves to do.”

The comments drew a sharp retort from James Betts, who represented the city and Autry, who was named as a defendant. Betts called Wanger’s comments “unsupported and unnecessary” and asserted that Wanger had “no foundation in law or fact” to criticize Autry.

Wanger then reread Autry’s written statement after the agreement was first reached, in which the mayor said “white-collar exploitation of the homeless by the court and the lawyers is unconscionable.”

Autry, the judge said, had no knowledge of the legal process or the mechanics of class actions.

In defending Autry, Betts said “his comments were heartfelt” and were made because attorneys for the homeless had indicated early in the process that they would do their work “pro bono” — for free.

The exchange ended when Wanger told Betts that Autry nearly caused the settlement to fall apart.

Reached later Friday, Autry reiterated his comments that he agreed to settle because “you are held hostage in these settlement negotiations” by powerful organizations such as the ACLU.

He said he had hoped Wanger would deem the legal fees unreasonable.

“That hasn’t happened,” Autry said. “He has not explained to the people why he deemed [the fees] reasonable. What is his criteria for being reasonable?”

As for the settlement, $1.485 million will go to the homeless — $1.4 million from Fresno and $85,000 from the California Department of Transportation.

Wanger set legal fees at $750,000 and approved an additional $100,000 in legal costs associated with the case.

Wanger had ruled earlier that the city’s clean-up sweeps violated homeless residents’ Fourth Amendment rights, which protect against unreasonable searches and seizures, and their 14th Amendment rights to due process. Possessions of homeless who were not present were immediately destroyed.

To date, Alexander said, 268 people have put in claims. The deadline to submit a claim has been extended to Aug. 22. The settlement also includes a $1,000 payment to each of the eight surviving original plaintiffs.

Afterward, Alexander — who was praised by Wanger for “exemplary and outstanding service to the public” — said he was pleased with the settlement.

Homeless resident Jeannine Nelson said she hoped the settlement would bring change in the city’s attitude toward homeless residents. But fellow homeless resident Alfonso Williams wasn’t so sure.

“We won this battle,” he said, “but the war isn’t over.”

The reporter can be reached at jellis@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6320.

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Fresno Bee, Calif.

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